Don Van Vliet, AKA Captain Beefheart, passed away today, Dec. 17, 2010. I have been into "weird" music (that's a technical term, mind you) for a very long time - first listened to Frank Zappa while I was in 7th or 8th grade - so I can safely rank Captain Beefheart near the top of my all-time favorite artists. Been aware of his vocal contribution to Zappa's "Willie the Pimp" since high school - it wasn't until I moved out to Berkeley in the late '90s that I dug into his own catalog. Trout Mask Replica is often regarded as his "most important" album, with its atmosphere of "in the field" recording by Zappa, but I really came to love Lick My Decals Off Baby with the almost Ornette Coleman-like rhythmic approach, as well as the more straight-ahead feel of Spotlight Kid and Clear Spot. And when I say "straight-ahead," take it with a grain of salt. Don't expect "Roses are red, Violets are blue" type poetry - instead, you will be greeted by titles such as "Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish" and lyrics that mix blues and pseudo-new age sentiments such as:
Everbody's doin' it
Please don't let them ruin it om
(Thanks to the Captain Beefheart Radar Station for its repository of Beefheart knowledge)
In college I knew some people who idolized Tom Waits, but I knew that Captain Beefheart was a truer, twisted-er manifestation of the blues via Howlin' Wolf. In its most literal sense, Howlin' Wolf's "Hoy Hoy, I'm the boy" (from Willie Dixon's "300 Pounds of Joy") is warped into "Hoy Hoy, is she a boy?" in Captain Beefheart's "When Big Joan Sets Up" (from Trout Mask Replica). Of course, the transformation/evolution of the blues into something much more avant garde is much more ambiguous and loose.
I feel fortunate to be able to offer a tribute, albeit one from almost 15 years ago. In 1996 I was honored to fill in for John Rider when one of his children was being born. I played a show at Lupo's in Providence, RI, and another in Port Chester, NY at 7 Willow Street. At both shows we performed Frank Zappa's "Willie the Pimp," with myself of bass and vocals. I didn't offer a particularly strict interpretation of the lyrics - after the first show, someone complained that I didn't say "hot rats" which of course is the title of the album the song appears on. So I made sure to recite the line at the second show at 7 Willow St. I wasn't as confident a soloist at the time, so there is only a guitar solo by the incomparable Scott Murawski and keyboard solo by the wonderful Mark Mercier. Without further ado, here it is:
Willie the Pimp
- R.I.P. Captain Beefheart